Don’t turn around. Throw your wallet behind you,” the raspy voice says.
My breath escapes into the early morning air in the form of a grey cloud.
I turn to face him – he’s small, wearing a tan skullcap, and his face is unshaven. Nothing about him stands out. Nothing that would make me think he looks like a criminal. Except for the gun he is pointing at my chest.
I didn’t think I’d see anyone besides the Chevron clerk at this hour. I didn’t expect any excitement when I came out for cigarettes, something I hadn’t done in over ten years.
“Hey,” he says, startled, “I said don’t turn around. Don’t look at me.”
“Why didn’t just you wear a mask if you didn’t want to be seen? Don’t you have any leftover surgical masks from COVID at least?” I don’t intend to sound clever or to be foolish in challenging him. It’s just the first thing I think when he tells me not to look at him.
“Never mind what I’m wearing, hand me your wallet.”
“I don’t have it.”
I’m telling the truth when I say this.
“How’d ya pay for those smokes?”
“ApplePay,” I say with a tone that implies obviously.
I realize that we might be seen on camera by now.
“Move back there,” I suggest, pointing to the dark car wash across the parking lot.
“What? I said give me your wallet. I’m holding a gun and you’re telling me what to do?”
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about my name. Wallet,” he says waiving the gun from side to side in front of me.
I’ve never seen a gun up close before. I’m nearly hypnotized by the dance it does it front of my face.
“Hey,” he says trying to sound a little more intimidating.
“We’re on camera right here so I know you’re not planning to shoot me.”
He can’t help himself. He looks over his shoulder to find the security camera. Amateur move, he’s no thief.
I haven’t forgotten how to pack cigarettes. I slap the little white box against my left hand, peel off the plastic wrapper with a single pull of the gold string and remove the foil seal. Like riding a bike. I slide out one Marlboro Light and light it with the cheap book of matches I grabbed inside.
“You want a smoke?” I ask, offering him the pack.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Over here,” I suggest and start walking towards the car wash, sure that he will follow me like a dog on a leash.
“If you won’t tell me your name, I’ll call you Fred,” I say, stopping in front of a pair of dumpsters. We are facing each other again.
“If you don’t want to be called Fred, tell me what to call you.”
“You must be bat shit crazy,” he tells me, “do you want me to shoot you?”
I take a deep drag of my cigarette and blow out a long stream of white smoke.
“Yes,” I say, “I do.”
“I’ll give you every last dollar I have from that ATM over there. It isn’t much. But, I’ll give you everything I have. As long as you promise to shoot me after I do.”
“Jesus, you must be crazier than me,” for the first time he sizes me up as he speaks. He takes in my designer jeans, my botox-smoothed forehead, my hair freshly auburn and cut into a severe bob.
“What makes you think I think you’re crazy?” I ask Fred.
“Because I’m robbing you. Nuts, right?”
“That’s not for me to say.”
“I’m not going to kill you lady, I just want your money.”
“And I want you to kill me.
So you’ll get what you want if I get what I want.”
“What’s with you?”
I pull on the cigarette again, nostalgic for the comfort of habitual smoking. “You picked the wrong person to rob. You should have found someone who would be scared. Unfortunately, that isn’t me.”
“Is this some kind of trap?” Fred asks.
He looks ashamed, but desperate.
He looks like me, or at least the way I feel.
I’m so close to the finish line, I feel myself breasting the ribbon.